Why Does the Torah End with Deuteronomy?

Shouldn’t the book of Joshua be included?

A Torah scroll in the old Glockengasse Synagogue of Koln, Germany. Photo by Willy Horsch. Used under Creative Commons license.

Many peoples of the world have what scholars call a foundation myth. This is the story which recounts their origins as a distinct ethnic/cultural group. It may also express what they view as their purpose and destiny.

A sophisticated example is Virgil’s epic The Aeneid. In this monumental poem Virgil narrates the origins of the Romans as refugees from a burning Troy. It also foresees their destiny to rule the world.

On a first read, one might be inclined to see the Torah as Israel’s foundation myth. The Torah (I am using its most limited meaning) is the name given to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They are also known as the Books of Moses or as the Pentateuch.

The Torah is a mixture of both narrative and legal material. In its narrative sections, it tells the story of Israel’s origins, beginning with Abraham’s journeys and culminating in the great national journey of the Exodus.

In the Torah’s telling of that Exodus journey, Israel as a people leave their bondage in Egypt under Moses’ leadership and wander through the Sinai desert for 40 years. As a narrative it can hold its own with Aeneas’ wanderings from Troy to Italy in terms of its engaging story telling.

The Torah, however, is more than a narrative. It also prescribes the laws and worship practices that will give Israel its distinctive identity and will regulate its communal and worship life. In that respect, it’s like a constitution for the nation of Israel. Because of its story and its laws, the Torah has always been central to Jewish life. It holds a pre-eminent place in the Hebrew Bible.

The Torah breaks with the mold

But there is one odd feature about the Torah as a foundation myth. As a collection, it ends with the book of Deuteronomy. At the end of Deuteronomy, Israel stands poised to cross over the Jordan River and take possession of the land of Canaan. This is the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants in the book of Genesis. But–­and this is the surprising but­–Israel has not yet done so. Torah ends on a note of incompletion.

I say it’s odd because the fuller Exodus narrative does have a completion. Israel does cross over the Jordan and takes up possession of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. That is the story recounted in the Book of Joshua.

But the odd thing is that the compilers who put together the canon of the Hebrew Bible excluded the Book of Joshua from the Torah proper. We don’t expect that in a normal foundation myth, where the completion of the journey of origin and the possession of a land identified with the story’s particular ethnic group is an essential part of the myth. The story gives the rationale for why a particular people occupies the land they do.

So why does Israel’s foundation story not conform to the pattern? That’s the question I find myself asking. Why did the editors of the Torah decide to end Torah with Deuteronomy instead of Joshua?

I find the most illuminating answer to that question in a book I read many years ago. It is James A. Sanders’ Torah and Canon. In it he discusses the development of the canon of the Hebrew Bible. He points out that the canon as it came finally and definitively to be set includes this odd fact that the Torah ends with Deuteronomy.

He finds scattered evidence in the Old Testament that that may not have been the case in earlier eras of Israel’s history. Before the Babylonian exile, early versions of the Torah seem to have included the Book of Joshua. Other early versions may also have posited that the Exodus journey did not really end until David captured the city of Jerusalem and Solomon built the temple. Either ending would have given the Exodus story its triumphant ending.

But the canon of the Hebrew Bible rejects such a triumphalist conclusion. It ends the Torah with Deuteronomy. In the last chapters of Deuteronomy Israel is poised to complete its journey but has actually not yet done so.

Sanders believes the canonical version of the Torah received its final formation during the Babylonian exile or in the years afterwards. One decisive thing had changed in that period of Israel’s life. Israel had been dispossessed of its land, its capital, and its temple. Jews were living in a dispersion around the Near East and in the Mediterranean. The diaspora had begun. It has largely continued to be the reality of Jewish life from that point on, although the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 has launched a major reversal of that reality.

Establishing the perennial relevance of the Torah

 How could the foundation myth of Israel that ended with the conquest of the land speak to Jews in diaspora? Had it not been discredited by the facts of history? Could not therefore its laws also be discarded as irrelevant to the life that Jews lived in diaspora? That seems the logical conclusion.

But what if the Torah ends with Deuteronomy? In a case, Torah ends with Israel still outside its land, still on its journey. The laws and the stories of the Torah still apply to a people who have not yet arrived at their destination.

They are something that a people in diaspora can relate to. The provisions of the Torah are then not historically limited. They gain a perennial relevance to generations upon generations of Israelites into the future.* Says Sanders: Through the Torah, Israel passed from a nation in destitution to a religious community in dispersion that could never be destroyed.**

Through the constitution of the Torah, the stories and the laws of ancient Israel continue to shape the identity of Jews and govern their behavior. Continues Sanders commenting on Ezekiel 33:10:

In Babylonia after the news had arrived in 587 B.C. that Jerusalem had fallen and the Temple been destroyed, some elders came to the prophet Ezekiel and asked him the pertinent question: “ ‘ Ek nihyeh?’ How shall we live?” In now what does our existence obtain? What now is our identity?

 The answer finally came in the form of the Pentateuch and the laws which JEDP had inserted within it. And that was when we knew that our true identity, the Torah par excellence, included the conquest neither of Canaan (Joshua) nor of Jerusalem (David) but that Sinai, which we never possessed, was that which we would never lose.***

The Christian inheritance from the Jewish Torah

This understanding of the boundaries of Torah is part of the heritage that Christians have inherited from our Jewish origins. For this understanding of Jewish life as an uncompleted pilgrimage is transformed by Christian spiritual writers into an understanding of the Christian life as an uncompleted pilgrimage in this life. This is one of the themes of the book of 1 Peter in the New Testament.

The Christian journey does not end until we too pass over the spiritual Jordan of death to enter into the true promised land, the Kingdom of God that lies in the future. And so, gathered as a people around the Bible, our Christian Torah book, we sing:

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,

Pilgrim through the barren land;

I am weak, but Thou are mighty;

Hold me with Thy powerful hand;

Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,

Feed me till I want no more,

Feed me till I want no more.****


* They do, however, need to be adapted to the changing circumstances of Jewish life. That is the task of the oral Torah that culminates in the Talmud.

** James A. Sanders, Torah and Canon. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972. Page 51.

*** Sanders, Page 53.

**** Welsh revival hymn by William Williams, 1745

God’s Law as an Ice Cream Sundae

In its attitude towards Torah, Psalm 119 easily throws us off balance.

One of my pleasures in life is eating an ice cream sundae. Take some chocolate ice cream, pour on some melted marshmallow, pile on the whipped cream, and top with a maraschino cherry. I don’t often indulge in such pleasure. My weight control discipline won’t allow it. But when I do, it is sheer delight.

This image comes to mind when I read Psalm 119. This is the longest psalm in Book of Psalms–176 verses. It is an extended celebration of Torah.

Most Bible translators translate the Hebrew term Torah as Law. That has precedent in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint. Certainly Torah has many laws, precepts, and commandments. The ancient rabbis are said to have identified 613 in that most narrow of meanings of Torah: the five books of Moses that open the Hebrew Bible.

But Torah means literally “instruction,” and includes the narrative portions of the Pentateuch as well as the legal portions. As Judaism developed, Torah grew to include the oral Torah as well as the written Torah. This development found its definitive expression in the Talmud. So in many ways, I think it is legitimate to understand Torah as the whole extended theological tradition of Judaism, something that extends beyond just the laws and commandments themselves.

Psalm 119 is like one exuberant aria celebrating Torah. But the psalmist particularly has the legal portion of Torah in mind, as we see the many synonyms he uses for Torah. They include: commandments, ordinances, precepts, statutes, as well as promises, words, and testimonies. He seems especially focused on the Torah’s guidance for behavior.

An Unexpected Way of Looking at Torah

Now here’s the unexpected thing about Psalm 119 that can easily throw many Christians off balance. We have a long tradition of looking at the Jewish Torah as an oppressive, deadening legalism. We think it is a burden, whose function is primarily to instill a sense of guilt. That view of Torah has a long history in Christianity. It finds particular expression in the characteristic way the Protestant Reformers played off law against grace.

But when you read Psalm 119, you find none of that depressing spirit. For the psalmist, Torah is the joy of his life. When I read the psalm, I am struck by the repeated use of the word “delight” in the psalmist’s description of the Torah. In the Revised Standard Version translation, we find the word in 119:14, 119:16, 119:24, 119:35, 119:47, 119:70, 119:77, 119:92, 119:143, and 119:174.

Along with these verses are a number of verses where the psalmist declares how he loves Torah (119:47-48, 119:97, 119:113, 119:119, 119:127, 119:140, 119:159, 119:163, 119:165, 119:167). In 119:111, the psalmist asserts that Torah is the joy of his heart. In 119:127, he says he values Torah higher than fine gold.

And in 119:103, he says:

How sweet are thy words to my taste,

                        sweeter than honey to my mouth!

It’s as if Torah is this particular person’s ice cream sundae.

Many Christians find the psalm unnerving. How can anyone say such startling things about something as oppressive as the Mosaic Law? Does the psalmist have some warped sense of value?

Judaism as a Religion of Grace

To appreciate the psalmist’s sentiments, a lot of Christians are going to have to radically revise the way they look at Jewish Torah. For what the psalmist does is show us how Judaism is as much a religion of grace as is Christianity.

How can I say that? It is important to reflect carefully on how the Bible pictures God’s giving the Torah to Israel. The gift of Torah comes at Mount Sinai after Moses has led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and in the years following. It is important to notice the dynamic of the Biblical narrative as we have it in the five books of Moses.

God does not give Torah to Israel before its liberation from Egypt. God does not give Torah to Moses at the burning bush and then say to Moses, “Take this law to my people Israel in Egypt. If they obey it, then I will come and release them from their bondage.” If that had been the case, liberation would have been conditional on Israel’s obedience. Torah would indeed be legalism, and Israel’s religion a religion of works righteousness, to use a favored Protestant theological term.

No, God liberates Israel from Pharaoh’s tyranny, brings them out of Egypt to Mount Sinai, and there creates his covenant with Israel, with Torah as part of the gift of this covenant. Obedience to Torah had nothing to do with Israel’s liberation. Its liberation is an act of God’s sheer grace, of his faithfulness to his own promises.

But now that Israel is free, how will it sustain its freedom? How will it avoid falling back into the behaviors that would re-establish the kind of bondage they experienced in Egypt? Torah is the answer. In its laws and commandments, Torah establishes a way of life, a way of behaving, that offers assurance that Israel can preserve the freedom and liberation God has given it.

Yes, there may seem to be some strange laws in Torah that Christians don’t understand how they sustain freedom. I cite the commandment not to boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19). But the heart of Torah is its many regulations for ordering Israel’s relationship to God and the relationship of Israelites with one another. Jesus will later summarize the focus of Torah in the two summary commandments: Love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Torah gets specific about what that means in practice.

When Israel fails to live by this structure of law, it gets itself in trouble. That becomes clear as you read the Old Testament prophets. Their denunciations of Israel revolve around two major sins: the apostasy of idolatry and social injustice.

Torah as God’s Good Gift

So in this Biblical perspective Torah becomes a great gift. It points the way to fruitful living. It is wisdom. We hear that theme ringing through Psalm 119.

I will never forget thy precepts;

            For by them thou hast given me life. (119:93)

I will keep thy law continually,

            for ever and ever;

and I shall walk at liberty,

            for I have sought thy precepts. (119:44-45)

We live in a world today where many people regard religion as a form of oppression. I think that is the view of religion that most people have in mind when they say: “I’m spiritual but not religious.” For them, religion consists of a mass of obligations, dry rituals, guilt-producing preaching, and hypocrisy. They cannot imagine the traditions and rituals and morality practiced by historic religions, like Christianity and Judaism, as anything being near to liberating. Give us instead something freer, a spacious but largely undefined spirituality.

That is not the attitude, however, of the psalmist who wrote Psalm 119. In the commandments, the statutes, the precepts of Torah, he finds something that allows his spirit to soar. As a result, he breaks literally into song.

How can we recapture the spirit behind his song? I think it means we must get in touch once again, at a very deep existential level, with an experience of God’s saving grace. Only when we know that at his very heart God is a God of love who yearns for the best for his people can we begin to appreciate how the doctrines, rituals, and moralities that express our understandings of his grace can become life-giving and freedom-sustaining.

Humble Moses

Moses by Michelangelo
Moses by Michelangelo

Moses did not let power or access go to his head.

I was reading in the Book of Numbers when I came upon this extraordinary sentence: Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth. (Numbers 12:3)

I call it extraordinary because it says something extraordinary about one of the world’s great leaders. It claims that Moses was humbler than anyone else on the face of the earth.

That’s not how I expect someone to praise a leader he or she admires. I expect the admirer to praise the leader’s charisma, his projection of power, his effectiveness in getting things done, his ability to inspire, his skill in defeating opponents, or his superior giftedness over others. But who expects to praise a leader for his humbleness?

I found myself stopping to ask: Why? Why this particular commendation of Moses? Because if anyone had reason to feel proud, Moses did.

He had defeated a powerful autocrat. Actually God had, if we read the story of Exodus carefully, but a lesser leader might have been tempted to think that he had done it by himself alone.

He had freed a vast multitude of slaves. Talk about revolution. Moses ought to be up there on the pedestal with the great liberators of the oppressed. In that respect, he changed his world.

He had been given privileged access unmatched by anyone else. He was given access to the very presence of God on Mount Sinai. There he had received revelation from God directly, not through any intermediary. According to Numbers 12:8, God himself says about Moses:

With him I speak face to face—

clearly, not in riddles;

and he beholds the form of the Lord.

This is the kind of divine access that humanity has long dreamed of.

And yet Moses does not let this divinely accorded power and access to go to his head. Says the Torah writer, “Now the man Moses was very humble….”

Exploring the extraordinary in context

Whenever I read something extraordinary in the Bible, I like to notice the context in which it is said. Often that context fleshes out the meaning. It does so, for example, in this very case.

Numbers Chapter 12 tells the story of a challenge to Moses’ leadership. It comes from his own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam. They manifest jealousy of Moses’ position with God. They complain, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?”

But rather than express their jealousy openly, they hide it by criticizing Moses’ wife. How many pastors could testify to similar experiences? Unhappy members in a congregation are just as likely to disguise their hostility towards the pastor by making cutting criticism of his or her spouse and children.

The Lord vindicates Moses by a direct endorsement of Moses’ position and by inflicting a serious skin disease on Miriam. (This raises questions about why Aaron escapes this punishment. Does the writer—or God—show a gender bias?)

What fascinates me is Moses’ response. Moses does not gloat in this divine endorsement. Instead he immediately pleads with God to heal his sister. He takes his place on the side of the wronged and wounded, even the sinful.

A recurring pattern in Moses’ leadership

That led me to remember the other times in the Exodus journey when God threatens to destroy the whole people of Israel and form a new people out of the descendants of Moses. (See Exodus 32, Numbers 14, and Deuteronomy 9.)

In each case some blatant expression of faithlessness on the part of the people of Israel provokes God to make this threat. God has come to their rescue time after time, and yet they continue to grumble and doubt God’s power or love. Once again many a pastor could share stories about how expressions of faithful care to a congregation is rewarded by a congregation’s complaints that the pastor is not doing enough for them.

If Moses had let the extraordinary power and access that God has conferred on him to go to his head, he would gladly respond to these promises by God. He would be flattered that his descendants would displace the descendants of Abraham as the people of God’s special favor. What a historical honor!

But Moses does no such thing. Instead time after time, Moses pleads with God to forgive the people of Israel, to remain faithful to his promises to Israel, not to abort the process that God started when he freed the people from slavery and led them out of Egypt.

The most extraordinary example comes in Exodus 32. There Moses has been detained on Mount Sinai for 40 days. The people of Israel despair over his long absence, and so persuade Aaron to create a golden calf that they can worship as a god.

God responds in rage. He threatens to wipe out Israel. He even denies that he brought them out of Egypt. He spits out to Moses, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” But he honors Moses’ faithfulness by promising to make a great nation of him.

Moses, however, responds with one of the great prayers of intercession to be found in the Bible. It is fascinating how Moses expresses his arguments with God (something to analyze in another blog posting). And he prevails. The text says that God changed his mind. Israel is saved from destruction.

In all these cases, Moses puts the welfare of the nation, the wellbeing of the rebellious, above his self-advantage. Moses remains committed to the enterprise of the Exodus when even God seems sometimes to waver.

Now that’s what I think the Torah writer had in mind when he commends Moses’ humility. When Moses has the temptation to advance his own cause at the expense of his people, he chooses the cause of his people every time. He stands to the side and lets the people take their place of priority with the Lord. And that, I think, is extraordinary humility.


The Spiritual Life as Unfinished Business

Bible texts: The First Five Books of the Bible  (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)

In Judaism, the Torah is the inner core of the Bible, the canon within the canon. Christians know the Torah as the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. It consists of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

These books contain a lot of legal material. But the Torah is much more than a legal code. It is essentially a narrative. It tells the story of Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt, through 40 years of nomadic life in the Sinai, to its arrival at its destination, the land of Canaan, which is the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants.

It is, in one sense, a national epic. It provides the foundation story for Israel. It details how Israel came to be and the essentials of its identity.

But there is a peculiar twist to this story. It recounts a journey. But when we come to the last chapters of Deuteronomy, Israel has not yet finished its journey.

Deuteronomy ends with Israel on the east side of the Jordan River. It is poised to cross over and take up residency in the Promised Land. Israel, however, has not yet done so.  Even Moses at the end of Deuteronomy gazes at the land from a distance. He dies outside the land.

One has to read on into the book of Joshua to read how Israel crosses the river and takes up occupation of the land that God had promised. If one reads further on into the historical books, one will finally reach the story of the capture of Jerusalem, the construction of the temple, and the Solomonic empire. Here one reaches what we might consider the apex of Israel’s history. The historical books form part of the Hebrew Bible, but they are not included in the Torah proper.

Now this is odd, if we compare the Torah with another epic of national origins and identity, the Roman story narrated in Virgil’s Aeneid. The Aeneid, too, is a story of a journey. Aeneas travels from fallen Troy to Latium in Italy, where his descendants build Rome.

 The epic ends on a similar unfinished note. Aeneas kills Turnus, but the city is not yet founded. Nonetheless the epic still celebrates the greatness and glory of Rome at its height. In Book Six, Aeneas visits Hades, where he is given a vision of the glorious future of Rome. That future culminates in the greatness of the empire of Augustus Caesar. In that sense the epic ends on a note of triumph.

The Torah, on the other hand, ends with an uncompleted journey. It, too, looks ahead to a conclusion of the journey, but the conclusion is not included in the Torah proper. This means the core text of Judaism is a story of unfinished business.

This raises an important question. Why did the scholars who created the Hebrew canon decide to exclude Joshua from the Torah?

I suspect the answer is that those scholars sensed, even if only in their guts, that the conclusion of Israel’s journey is not the historical possession of Canaan under Joshua and the later Solomonic empire. The fulfillment of the promise still lies in the future.

Whether Israel lives in it own land or lives in other peoples’ lands as a diaspora, its life is fundamentally a life of unfinished business. What governs that life is the narrative of the journey. The Torah’s stories, principles, and laws provide the divine wisdom for a people whose life is always a spiritual journey. That journey will remain uncompleted until that glorious day of the Lord when the kingdom of God comes finally and definitively.

The Christian Application

Now this understanding of the Torah holds great significance for Christians as well. When Christian writers on the spiritual life write about that life, they often resort to the metaphor of a journey. A few examples: Gregory of Nyssa’s allegorical Life of Moses, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. I believe all are drawing upon the paradigm of the Exodus as narrated in the Torah.

The Christian understanding of the journey begins with the crossing of the Christian Red Sea in baptism. It continues as a wandering through the wilderness of the world. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews will draw upon the language of strangers and exiles wandering on the earth (Hebrews 11:13), as will the apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:11). That journey brings both divine blessings and many false turns, both joy and sorrows. It ends with death, which Christians have traditionally celebrated as a crossing of the Jordan.

So for Christians, too, the spiritual life remains a journey of unfinished business. The journey does not reach its final destination until after death when we arrive in God’s perfect Sabbath rest, the heavenly Jerusalem, the kingdom of God. Hope, therefore, remains a fundamental virtue of the Christian life.

Now this has significance for the conduct of Christian evangelism. One popular way of preaching the good news is to set before unbelievers the great blessings they will gain by placing their trust in Christ. Traditionally those include love, joy, peace, healing, and sometimes very concrete material blessings such as prosperity and worldly success. If we base evangelism on these promises, what do we do when inevitably new believers encounter turmoil, serious illnesses and reverses, hostility, and even persecution or worse in their Christian lives?

Such forms of evangelism forget that we are inviting others into a life with Christ that will include both blessing and trials,  both happiness and sorrows, both fulfillment and unfulfillment. What we are inviting people into is a journey, a journey of discipleship. And that journey will not reach its destination in this life. We remain spiritual nomads all of our lives.

But that does not mean the journey is not worth taking. Rather our spiritual lives remain unfinished business until that day when we meet the Lord face to face and he invites us into the joy of our spiritual homeland at last. In the meantime the Torah as well as the rest of the Bible gives us guidance for making the journey with integrity.

Note: I do not want to give the impression that this understanding of the Jewish Torah is an original one with me. I first encountered it in James A. Sanders, Torah and Canon (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972). I recommend it if you wish to explore the thought deeper.